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Air & Sea: Solutions for the Landlocked
Getting To Your Cruise Embarkation Port

By Linda Coffman

For fifty-one weeks a year, you’re a landlubber. You know you want to sail away on the cruise of your dreams with peaceful days at sea and the excitement of far-flung ports. But there’s no ocean in sight and you wonder how to get there from here.

Have no fear. For the convenience of one-stop shopping, cruise lines’ Air & Sea programs can’t be beat. An added bonus is that by bundling all your air, land, and sea transportation together, you have a cruise vacation that is nearly all-inclusive and worry free.

On the other hand, forward-thinking landlocked cruisers who buy discounted advance purchase tickets can save a bundle—or at least enough to cover the cost of a pre-cruise overnight hotel. Comparison-shopping makes sense if you have the time and inclination to do it.

Cost aside, the most-often-complained-about drawbacks to Air & Sea programs are a result of the obvious—cruise lines can’t control airline scheduling. In a nutshell, it works like this: cruise lines buy the number of seats required on flights departing from major airline gateway cities, but the airlines themselves assign the flights. Thirty days before sailing, tickets are issued and the fun begins. Unless you don’t care about sitting with your cruising companions, keep in mind that cruise lines can’t confirm seat assignments. Most cruise travel specialists are savvy enough to cinch flight numbers thirty days out and secure seat assignments. Make sure yours does!

Now, about that “fun”… You say your favorite air carrier has direct service from your gateway airport to Miami, so why are you scheduled for a pre-dawn departure with two stops and a plane change? Quite simply, it's because people buying tickets independently snapped up all the seats on the more popular non-stop flights. Flights assigned to cruise passengers aren’t always the most desirable since cruise lines pay low contracted fares. Basically that means you're getting what the airlines have open when the time comes to assign flights. If only your choice of airline and flight will do, make a request for Air Deviation. For a fee, plus any associated airline charges, the cruise line Air Deviation department will try to lock in your preference. There’s no guarantee you'll get what you want, but they’ll try. 

Back in the plus column, don’t let the thought of traveling during peak holiday seasons put a damper on your cruise plans and your wallet. When major holidays draw near, an Air & Sea program may be just the ticket to secure any airline reservation, let alone an affordable one. Also consider cruises that don’t end up where they start. Cruising one-way on an Alaska adventure, say from Vancouver to Anchorage, means paying higher non-round-trip airfare (essentially two one-way tickets) unless you purchase the cruise line’s more budget friendly air add-on. Air & Sea pampers your travel budget if the airfare is truly free or such a bargain you can’t pass it up.

Air & Sea programs have perks other than price as well. There’s comfort in knowing someone is looking out for you and your luggage as well as providing ground transportation to the ship. Uniformed cruise line agents meet incoming passengers and smooth their way from airport to pier.

A caveat: Even with Air & Sea flight arrangements, lengthy airline delays can result in literally missing the boat. A common misconception is that when your airline ticket is purchased through the cruise line that they are responsible for getting you to your ship. According to a Royal Caribbean International Customer Service representative, “If you purchase the air through Royal Caribbean International, under our contract with the air carriers it is their responsibility to get you to the next port of call. If a flight is canceled it is their responsibility to not only get you to the next port of call, but if they have to they have the ability to put you on another flight even if it is on another carrier to ensure that you don't miss the ship.” 

If you must fly to port the day your ship sails, Lucy Hirleman, President of Berkshire Travel in Newfoundland, NJ, advises cruise passengers to "Request the first flight of the day from your departure city. Delays in later flights can snowball, creating air-scheduling havoc and scarce seats as fliers scramble to get on board."

The bright side to Air & Sea is that if you are delayed for any reason, the cruise line will try to help you get to your destination on time. Call the telephone number in your cruise documents in case of delay. Cruise line personnel are on hand to assist you and can sometimes find alternative flights on other airlines to speed you on your way. If that’s not possible, they can help you schedule flights to the first port of call and smooth your way to meet the ship. Unless you get lucky and a great many passengers are delayed, the ship won't necessarily wait for you at the embarkation port. Cruise line personnel can also assist with hotel arrangements and transfers (often the airline will pay for these if they are at fault). Insurance, including “trip delay” coverage pays for itself if you encounter any of these problems.

The possibility of flight delays and cancellations are the best reason to extend your vacation with a pre-cruise day of relaxation. Arrive early and de-stress—an especially wise move if your home is in the Snowbelt and your cruise is in January!  The extra expense is well worth the peace of mind.

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